Have you ever felt a shocklike sensation out of nowhere in one or both nipples after breast cancer treatment? You’re not alone. Although feeling these or any number of other sensations in your breast can be concerning and even confusing, they’re common following breast cancer treatment.
Learn more about shocklike sensations and four other nipple sensations that you may experience after breast cancer treatment and when to talk to your doctor about it.
In addition to skin changes after breast cancer treatment, you may also experience new or different sensations around your nipples or breasts, often due to nerve damage. You may even experience sensations in areas from which you’ve had a nipple or breast removed.
For example, after a mastectomy, you may still feel sensations such as twinges, numbness, or tenderness as if your breast and nipple are still there. Despite the breast tissue no longer being on your body, your brain may continue to send signals to nerves in the breast that were cut or damaged during surgery. The resulting sensations are called “phantom sensations” or “phantom pain.”
If you have a nipple-sparing mastectomy — when the nipple and areola are preserved — you may be left with little to no feeling left in the nipple due to nerves being cut during surgery. Breast reconstruction surgery may also cause changes or loss in nipple sensations. Breast and nipple sensations after surgery may come and go and can take months or years to subside as the nerves take time to heal.
In addition to surgery, certain chemotherapy drugs can cause nerve damage, called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy. For example, approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of people who take paclitaxel (Abraxane) as part of their treatment plan experience lingering nerve issues. However, this type of nerve damage isn’t usually felt in the breast. Rather, it often rather starts in the toes and may spread to the legs, hands, and arms, causing sensations like burning, tingling, shooting pain, or numbness.
Radiation can also cause nerve damage, leading to sensitivity, numbness, pain, and/or tingling in the chest or underarm areas.
People may experience a wide variety of nipple sensations after breast cancer treatment. Below are five different nipple sensations you may feel, including MyBCTeam members’ experiences navigating these strange and oftentimes exasperating sensations.
Even though breast cancer treatment may result in your nerves being damaged or removed, your brain will still send signals to those areas in your breast or nipple. Some MyBCTeam members describe these sensations as an electric-shock feeling. For example, one member said they experienced a “nipple burning pain and almost like an electric shock in the breast” a few weeks after a lumpectomy.
Another member noticed the electric shock feeling following radiation therapy: “During radiation treatments, on the way home a few times I felt electric shock feelings at the site of my incision, which was where my nipple was. They said it was nerve regeneration.”
Members note a range of time frames for how long these electric shock sensations lasted. Some people said these feelings subsided within a few months of treatment, while others experienced them for years. “It took about four years for mine to stop,” one member wrote.
It’s also normal to experience a burning sensation after surgery or radiation, which may occur in the area around your scar or your armpit. A burning sensation may also be accompanied by numbness or twinges in your breast or nipples.
One MyBCTeam member shared, “I am four months out since my lumpectomy. I also had an oncoplasty and my nipples moved up on both breasts — even the good one. They still burn and sometimes I get a twinge so bad I grab my breast. It’s the nerves. It was worse the first two months. It gets better. Feeling is starting to come back.”
It’s common to experience numbness in your breast or nipples after a mastectomy, even if you have a nipple-sparing mastectomy. One study found that 57 percent of individuals who had a nipple-sparing mastectomy followed by breast reconstruction reported numb nipples, and 32 percent reported that their nipples had less sensation than before their surgery.
One MyBCTeam member who had a bilateral nipple-sparing mastectomy wrote, “I have some feeling in my nipples. Where the lymph nodes were removed it’s still numb.”
An overpowering itching sensation is a common symptom of post-mastectomy pain syndrome, which is when nerve pain doesn’t go away after a mastectomy or lumpectomy. Itchiness that goes away after some time is normal too.
Many MyBCTeam members report unbearable itchiness in their nipples or chest, even those that don’t have nipples anymore after breast cancer surgery. “My ‘nipples’ itched like crazy, but they weren't there. Crazy feeling. It goes away, I promise,” one member shared.
Some members talked about the itchy feeling going beyond their nipples and into their new breasts or chest wall. “It’s an itchy feeling like I used to have when I had nipples, but it’s deep in tissue and I cannot do anything about it. Jiggling the implant does no good. It’s like having an itch on your back that you can't reach,” one member wrote.
Another said, “It’s like an intense itchy/poking feeling in there somewhere, and I can’t figure out where to scratch!”
One of the more common nipple sensations MyBCTeam members talk about is pain, especially pain in the breast that was removed. If you experienced breast pain before your mastectomy, you may be more likely to have phantom breast pain.
One member shared, “I experienced very sharp pain where my nipples used to be after a bilateral mastectomy for approximately three weeks. The doctor said it was normal nerve pain.”
Another wrote, “I feel those nipples hurting, but they are not there.”
Some members describe increased sensitivity where their nipples used to be: “I have feelings that I have nipples. Sometimes it feels like someone is twisting them. The worst is the sunburn feeling.”
While many of these nipple sensations are common after breast cancer treatment, it’s best to tell your doctor or plastic surgeon about any new feelings to determine whether they’re expected and how long they may last. Be sure to note any sensations that worsen or don’t get better over time, as treatment options may be available that provide relief and improve your quality of life. For example, your doctor may be able to prescribe medications to help with significant phantom breast or nipple pain.
Tell your doctor about new or worsening sensations in other parts of the body as well. Numbness or tingling in your hands or feet after starting chemotherapy may be a sign of peripheral neuropathy, which can become a long-term issue if left untreated.
When in doubt about what’s normal concerning your nipples or breasts after treatment, talk to your health care team right away. They can help you determine whether there’s something more they need to look at or if it’s something to just monitor over time.
On MyBCTeam — the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones — more than 64,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Have you felt an electric shock in your nipples after treatment? What other nipple sensations have you experienced after treatment, and how long did they last? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.